Senate debacle has silver lining

This is D-Day. If everything goes as planned, the Senate will vote tonight on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The vote comes none too soon. Both Clarence Thomas (win or lose tonight) and Anita Hill are losers. Their reputations are sullied. Their veracity in doubt. One of them lied, under oath. Both are officers of the court. One committed perjury.

Not a pretty sight.

But the Thomas hearings will also have some winners.

One is the nation’s increased awareness of the character and extent of sexual harassment. Interest generated by the national teach-in of the past week shows clearly that sexual harassment is a widespread problem.

Women have asserted for years that harassment has deep roots in the culture of the workplace. Much, it seems, is a result of ignorance on the part of men and especially men in positions of power in organizations where men and women increasingly work together.

Another big winner is the movement to limit the terms of members of Congress. During the weeks before the Anita Hill allegations, we learned the gritty details of perks and abuses by members of Congress, including their:

  • Freeloading, as shown by a check-kiting scheme where members bounced checks with impunity and left the taxpayers to cover more than $300,000 of unpaid bills run up by the members of Congress in the House restaurant;
  • Self-serving activities, as shown by the many free and discounted services available to members of Congress — including free postage, free radio and TV studios, free airport parking, free parking on Capitol Hill, and a ticket-fixing service:
  • Hypocrisy, as Congress exempts itself from affirmative action requirements, minimum wage laws, and most of the other laws and regulations they pass for you and me to follow.

The spectacle of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Judge Thomas has taken away one of the strongest arguments of the anti-term limitation crowd: the need, they say, to preserve the competence and wisdom that comes with experience in politics and seniority in the Congress.

If the way the U.S. Senate conducted the nation’s business last week is an example of competence at work, it is a lesson lost on most Americans. And, if the way members of Congress conduct themselves as leaders is a product of experience in politics, then maybe we need people in Congress who have a different kind of experience.

The Thomas confirmation spectacle couldn’t have come at a worse time for the career politicians in Congress. Nearly 70% of the American people already favor term limits. Last week, by a 6-1 vote, the California Supreme Court upheld draconian limits on the perks and terms of state legislators there. A proposal to limit terms in Washington state comes up for vote on Nov. 5. If it wins and survives a test in federal court, 14-term House Speaker Tom Foley will be out of office in three years.

So, regardless of how the Thomas vote turns out, the nation may be better off for what’s happened. We have sharply heightened awareness of the problem of sexual harassment and the need to eliminate it. And the process has boosted the movement to “clear the decks” in Congress, to bring in fresh blood and new talent, new people in touch with their roots who can make tough choices required of national leadership in the post-Cold War environment.

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